We build our kayaks to hold their course. It’s not that they’re unaffected by wind and waves. It’s that we’ve worked to minimize how much they’re affected by wind and waves. There are many ways to help a sea kayak go straight in adverse conditions. I have paddled many kayaks over the years, each with its own method to aid in tracking – let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages of each.
In the Beginning
One of the first methods used to aid in tracking was to add a rudder to the stern of the kayak. The rudder’s purpose is to help the kayak go straight, not to steer it. For example, when paddling with a crosswind, if your kayak wants to turn to starboard, you can add a little port rudder by pushing down on your left foot-peg. With the rudder’s help, you can continue to use a standard forward stroke and go straight. So rudders are more accurately described as trim tabs. Some early kayaks designed to use a rudder are so dependent on that rudder that the kayak is very difficult to control without it.
The nice thing about a rudder is it is very adaptable to changing conditions. If the wind picks up, add a bit more rudder angle and keep paddling. The not-nice thing is they are literally a drag: they keep you on course by adding drag to one side of the kayak.
Slide Foot-peg Controls
The early rudder controls had the whole foot-peg move. Since the right and left foot-peg were connected, straightening one leg required you to bend the other. I could never get this style arranged so I felt like I was connected to the kayak. If I could operate the rudder, I didn’t feel like I could brace my knees against the deck. If I could brace my knees, I couldn’t move the pegs enough that the rudder would make any significant change to the kayak’s track.
The Gas Pedal Control
Later rudder controls had what they called a gas pedal foot-peg. This style had a fixed foot-peg below a pad that you could depress with your toes. Most of these solved the connected foot-peg issue, so you could push one pad down and not have the other push up on your foot. The downside to this mechanism is it usually requires a bunch of springs: some in the foot-peg, some on the rudder. This style was therefore very prone to sticking. There’s no way to keep sand and saltwater from jamming them.
Even without the jamming problem, I’m not fond of this style because I have big feet. There isn’t room in most kayaks for me to have my feet anywhere near vertical. This meant my big toe does all the work. Imagine trying to hold down a spring-loaded toe pad with only your big toe for the hours it may take to do an open water crossing. I’ll admit I’ve never actually done that; my 10 minute effort was enough for me to realize that I wasn’t interested. This style also requires quite a bit of maintenance. As the springs wear out, the rudder tends to drift off center. They generally have adjustment screws, but those are usually located on the rudder assembly at the back of the kayak, an inconvenient place to reach while paddling.
She’s got a Sting in the Tail
Many rudders are hinged so that they can flip up onto the back deck. This design allows you to move them out of the way while landing or if you paddle in very shallow water. However, if you happened to end up swimming next to your kayak in heavy seas, the rudder assembly on the back of your kayak can suddenly become a very real threat to your life. Rudders are very strong, with a narrow entry into the water. Unfortunately, this also describes a machete or lawnmower blade. If a wave brought the tail of your kayak down on you, it could do a lot of damage. It earned enough of a reputation that some kayakers started calling rudders “scorpion tails”.
Skegs: New & Improved
A skeg is simply a retractable fin on the bottom of the kayak. They usually have different settings for how far into the water you need the skeg to be. If the weather is fine, you may not need it, so you can keep it retracted. If there is a light crosswind, you might only need it a quarter deployed. In heavier wind or seas, you can change how much of it is in the water to help you go straight. I will admit: I like the idea of a skeg. It solves almost all of the issues I have with rudders… except one. Skegs, like the spring-loaded gas pedal design on rudders, have a tendency to jam. There is just no way to keep sand and salt out of anything on a sea kayak, especially the bottom of a kayak.
Skegs also created another problem for touring. The skeg needs somewhere to retract into. That means the aft hatch needs to have a small sea chest in the middle of the hull. You can imagine how that creates a bottleneck when loading gear into the tail of the kayak. With our focus on making touring kayaks, limiting access to storage went against everything we were trying to accomplish.
A Simple Idea
So looking at our rudder and skeg options, we didn’t like any of them. The compromises we would have to make to install a rudder or a skeg seemed too great. So we decided not to use any of it, we decided to design a kayak that went straight without a rudder or skeg. We knew this would mean the kayak would take longer to turn, but compared to the compromises to install a rudder or skeg, it made the most sense.
The Fixed Keel
One of the first things you’ll notice looking at our kayaks is the shape of the tail. On our 17- and 19-foot kayaks, the tail is very narrow and long. By design, the displaced water from the kayak closes on the tail at cruising speed. This means while underway, the tail is deep in the water and fights rotation exceptionally well. Because the fixed keel is a built-in design feature, it has no moving parts, so it will never jam or stick. Since the fixed keel is… well… fixed, we use standard foot-pegs so that you can have a solid connection with the kayak.
If It’s So Easy Why Isn’t Everyone Doing It?
Our simple solution has one little issue: it is really hard to make. We mold our kayaks, which means we start with a negative of the kayak. We build our kayaks outside-to-inside and the first thing to go into the mold is the gel coat. The difficulty with the fixed keel is we need to apply an even layer of gel coat to the tail. The tail of the mold is a very narrow trench about ½” wide, 10″ deep, and almost a foot long before it opens up into the rest of the hull. Now, imagine you’re going to paint this with something that has the consistency of thick maple syrup.
To make it just a bit more difficult, gel coat has a certain thickness it wants to be. If you apply it in too thick a layer, it will crack. If it’s too thin, it will pull away from the mold in what is called an alligator. The only way we’ve found to do it is by hand with a brush. It takes years to develop the skills to apply it to the tail.
We Build our Kayaks to Hold Their Course
We have put a lot of thought and effort into the design of our kayaks. The fixed keel is just one example of the unique features our kayaks offer. With no rudder or skeg controls to fiddle with, you can focus on paddling. The fixed keel is also surprisingly low maintenance, since there are no moving parts there is nothing to replace or adjust. It also isn’t a drag; nothing protrudes into the water like a rudder or skeg. So if you’re looking for a kayak that will play it straight, look no further: you’ve found it.